In 1995, Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West told the other side of the classic 1900 L. Frank Baum story The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and was later adapted for the stage by Winnie Holzman, with music from Stephen Schwartz. Wicked began its life in San Francisco in 2003, heading to Broadway a few months later and transferring to London’s West End in 2006 – and it’s been there ever since! It is the 15th longest running show in London, and has now embarked upon its second UK & Ireland tour.
Are people born wicked? All her life Elphaba has been on the receiving end of people’s prejudice – and just because she has green skin. She and her wheelchair-bound sister Nessarose both enrol at Shiz University where the pattern continues, and Elphaba is forced to share a room with the popular (& polar opposite) Galinda. After a frosty start, they form an unlikely alliance which leads to Galinda giving her new friend a makeover and offering tips on how to boost her popularity. This isn’t lost on recently arrived Prince Fiyero, who later helps her to free a caged lion cub; the pair appear to have feelings for one another, but Elphaba dismisses it as Galinda (now known as Glinda) has confided that she hopes to marry him. This is all put to one side when Elphaba is invited to the Emerald City to finally meet the Wizard of Oz, bringing Glinda with her. But is this all too good to be true..?
The original Wizard of Oz story is probably best known from the 1939 film starring Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale (where they introduced ruby slippers to take advantage of colour film, rather than the silver ones from Baum’s book), and is something of a family staple. It’s no surprise, then, that this musical has enduring popularity across the world. By telling it from the witches’ perspectives, it highlights the fact that not everything is black & white; there are shades of grey and often two sides to a story. It also carries powerful anti-bullying message, which is backed up by the ‘For Good’ lesson resource pack available online, as well as encouraging viewers to embrace their individuality. This is more important than ever, as groups of social media users pressurise people to conform to their ‘ideal’, usually to the detriment of other users.
Creatively speaking, no stone is left unturned. Given that this is a touring production, and therefore has to be packed up & reassembled on a regular basis, it’s incredible how much detail you still get – of course there isn’t as ‘full’ a set as a permanent production enjoys, but Eugene Lee’s designs ensure that the visual side of storytelling is still of the highest quality. Susan Hilferty’s costume designs, too, play their part, with some exquisite pieces for the whole company. There is a slight lack of dynamism in scenes & songs which feature a small number of actors, however Wayne Cilento’s musical staging in the ensemble numbers makes up for this – and the show as a whole balances out fairly well.
Though it is a fairly large cast, you really do have to admire the work the ensemble put in to keep the show ticking over, switching between Monkeys, Students, Palace Guards, Denizens of the Emerald City and other Ozians throughout the 2h45 show.
Nessarose may not feature as much as Elphaba, but Emily Shaw puts in a memorable performance that ensures the “tragically beautiful” younger sister is at the back of your mind even when she has less to do. Shaw hints at her character’s potential for darkness from the beginning, though the joy she experiences when Boq (Iddon Jones) gives her his attention is heartwarming. Aaron Sidwell is effortlessly cool & carefree as Fiyero, also making a believable transformation to principled Captain of the Guard later on. Fiyero may be a rebellious student, however I’m not convinced Sidwell’s tattoos really fit with the aesthetics of the show; if an actress has to ‘go green’ to play Elphaba it shouldn’t be too much to ask to cover these up!
Helen Woolf’s Glinda is endearingly goofy, but this bubbly personality doesn’t prevent the so-called “good” witch from showing her true colours when she doesn’t get her way. Woolf’s portrayal actually highlights the uglier side of Glinda’s character, in turn making her genuinely kind gesture towards (& ensuing friendship with) Elphaba all the more meaningful. Opposite her as Elphaba, Amy Ross impresses throughout with an incredibly nuanced performance. You might think that ‘all’ you have to do to play a part like this is belt out the iconic songs, but there is so much more to it than that; one famous defining moment of the show is, of course, Defying Gravity and thanks to Ross’ skill as an actor you really feel what she’s going through (on top of a knockout vocal performance). This is evident in everything she does, taking Elphaba on a real journey of self-discovery.
My verdict? This modern classic remains as strong as ever on tour, with stellar performances from a standout cast – set to be Popular with audiences throughout the land.
Wicked runs at the Bristol Hippodrome until 3 March 2018 before continuing on tour. Tickets are available online or from the box office – full details of the tour can be found on the official website.